A solar-powered building dubbed "FLeX House" and designed by students from four Florida universities is rising in Tampa.
The result of two years of planning at the University of South Florida is slowly rising in on a bare lot near downtown Tampa.
Its designers say it could be the future of housing in Florida. But first it has to beat out 19 other teams in an international contest in Washington, D.C., this fall.
A consortium of the University of South Florida, the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida is working to build one of the most energy efficient houses in the world and win the U.S. Solar Decathlon.
People think "solar energy is sort of pie in the sky," said Rebecca Hagen, a USF communications instructor working with the project.
They say, "'We can't do it, we can't afford it, that's for somebody else, that's for the tree huggers,'" Hagen said. "What we're trying to show very hard is that we can do this, it's affordable, it's doable, it can be done today."
Solar is just part of the project. The Department of Energy, which sponsors the contest, challenged the teams to incorporate every conceivable energy savings technique into their buildings.
And one more thing: The homes have to be small and simple enough to take apart, load onto a truck and haul to the contest site, where students will put them back together.
It took more than 50 students and faculty members from the four Florida universities to figure it all out. They came from half a dozen departments, including architecture, engineering and interior design. They call themselves Team Florida.
The team named its creation FLeX House. It's a mixture of modern green energy technologies and the simple cooling techniques Floridians used decades ago, before air conditioning.
Altogether, if everything works as planned, the house will generate as much energy as it uses, said Stanley Russell, a USF assistant professor and Team Florida faculty advisor.
But it will be "very user-friendly," he said. "It will be affordable, easy to build and easy to expand" as a family grows.
The single-story rectangular-shaped house was designed to sit on the southern end of a lot to leave space for a shaded courtyard on the cooler northern side.
The walls running lengthwise will consist mostly of sliding glass doors that can be opened to let the air flow through the house on mild days.
The outside walls will be made of corrugated metal, but over them will be an "umbrella" of cypress wood louvers, creating an extra layer of shade.
"It's like having your own tree," Hagen said.
Solar panels on the roof will generate electricity to run the house and heat the water, and heat from the water will be used to heat the air in the home. But it will also be hooked into the electrical grid for back-up power when solar energy is low.
The designers pulled together several time-tested elements to squeeze out as much energy savings as possible, Russell said, but one element is unique: A liquid desiccant, a substance that pulls humidity from the air, will run through a duct system to make the air drier and easier to cool.
FLeX House was designed specifically for Florida, which is why, Russell believes, it was named one of the final 20 projects. At this point, however, it exists mostly on paper.
Once completed and reassembled in Washington, Team Florida students will have to prove it works to a group of judges.
They'll be graded not only on its efficiency but its market appeal, appliances, even home entertainment features.
The idea, Russell said, is to create a home that works, where people actually live.
The FLeX House is rising behind the Beck Group's office north of downtown Tampa, at 220 W. 7th Ave. Team Florida is still looking for sponsors to help pay the cost, about $200,000.
It must prove itself first, but the prototype Russell began designing two years ago was designed for mass production.
"We could build these in factories and ship them anywhere," he said.
"The sooner the better."
FLeX House features
• North wall of kitchen and living area can be opened to allow air flow on mild days and extend living space onto garden and deck.
• Structure of cypress louvers around roof and wall tempers heat of sun but allows light through.
• Kitchen, living area and bedroom can be opened into one space or partitioned off for privacy and temperature control.
• Bathroom can be partitioned into separate areas for shower, lavatory and toilet, allowing three people to use space at once.
• Solar panels power house and heat water, and hot water also can be used to heat air.
• Diagnostic software monitors 35 channels of data on house, including temperature, humidity and power.
• Most systems can be controlled remotely via cellphone or other mobile device.
• Rainwater can be collected, piped to underground cistern for irrigation and flushing toilets. Gray water from kitchen and bathroom can flow into cistern.